Priest Picks #23: Prolific, Protean, Pollard, & Perfection
Welcome to week #23 of Priest Picks. This week we examine the pros and cons of prolificacy. On one hand, it’s a good year to crank out an endless barrage of new music (what else are we doing with our time?). On the other hand, quality over quantity is an axiom to which we normally subscribe. But there are exceptions to that rule as we will find out shortly. This week is all about content. And lots of it.
1 OSEES / Protean Threat
2 OSEES / Metamorphosed
3 OSEES / Levitation Sessions
John Dwyer’s world most likely doesn’t orbit in the same universe as yours, but if its gravitational forces ever suck you in, be prepared for a delirious and protracted freak-out session of cataclysmic proportions. Once you’re tumbling down that black hole, there’s no easy way to claw your way out. Dwyer and his band the Osees (or Thee Oh Sees, or several other rotating permutations of that basic name) traffic in spasmodic fits of molten garage rock and primordial psychedelic wig-outs whose origins come from alternate galaxies, underground societies, botched laboratory experiments, and psych ward electro-shock therapy rooms. I know it’s time for a session with the Osees when my brain begins to feel numb and my inner clock needs a thorough cleaning. In such extreme cases, few bands do the job as well as the Osees.
Listening to the music of the Osees is one thing, playing it is a whole other ballgame. It’s more a lifestyle choice than a vocation, I think. Which explains the endless onslaught of new material from the band—three releases this year alone and a fourth (Panther Rotate) still slated to arrive in December. It’s a lot to digest even for the most rabid fan, but I'm here to help. Truthfully, I wasn’t even done with last year’s epic Face Stabber yet (which made my Best of 2019 list), mainly because it clocked in at a monstrous 80+ minutes. But even at that length, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking “What the fuck is going on?!” and I cannot tell you what a great feeling that is to have. As is protocol with Dwyer and his madcap men, I haven’t had to wait long for the next installment. Protean Threat follows that smorgasbord of sound with another similarly demented offering, but this one is served in more manageable bite-sized portions. Where Face Stabber’s first “single” was 20-minutes long, no song on Protean Threat exceeds the five-minute mark. The short program works pretty damn well, too, and proves the creative tap is full and spewing new ideas like a possessed lawn sprinkler. But while I could snack on these sonic hors d'oeuvres all night, I was kind of hoping for another long, strange epic trip by the end of the record. I like to freak out for a long time.
Metamorphosed, the band's most recent release, fixed that issue in record time. Billed as “more stuff from the Face Stabber sessions” (Jesus H. Christ on ice and Mary in the penalty box!!), the album gives us five more songs and 43 more minutes of prime shock treatment from the fertile sessions that brought us arguably the band’s greatest recorded triumph to date. Laughably, the first three songs are over in about 5-minutes, which leaves us with 38-minutes for the last two. So, as requested, I get not one, but two, new Osees epics to satisfy my need for an extended stay in the padded room (and in 2020, I know I’m not alone). “The Virologist” is basically your brain simmering in a saucepan for 14-minutes. Perhaps the end of the pandemic begins here? The final 23-minutes is dedicated to “I Got a Lot” and is the ultimate soundtrack for a late night drive through a world gone mad. The song sounds like it has found a way to record the thoughts firing inside the cross-wired cranium of a serial killer on the brink of a meltdown. For those of us who just like to get our heads fucked with in a healthy way, this is the ultimate in repetitive and trance-inducing psychobabble. Also, if you wanted to understand why the band has two full-time drummers, here’s your answer.
The Levitation Sessions features a “live” showcase with the band ripping through some favorites to soothe rabid fans going through withdrawal, and while it’s worth hearing, nothing will substitute for an in-person pummeling from the band. Let’s hope that’s sooner than later. The session does show the band in fine form, and they deliver their brand of toxic psych in mostly short and frantic injections, with the exception of the finale, an expanded rendition of “Block of Ice” from their 2008 album, The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In (I love that title). As usual, the Osees experience is an immersive one. Once embedded, it is highly recommended you stay until it comes to its unnatural conclusion. Do what the pharmacist says and you’ll be fine.
4 ZEPPELIN OVER DAYTON by Jeff Gomez
5 GUIDED BY VOICES / Mirrored Aztec
If Robert Pollard had his own channel on Sirius/XM, featuring music from Guided By Voices, his many side projects, and his solo work, they could probably go sixty days without repeating a song. We’re talking serious output here. Ohio’s state legislature is considering building a song dam somewhere downriver from Dayton to control the unrelenting output. How else to manage the overflowing content from the mind of Robert Pollard? Well, someone could write a book I suppose. That might help matters. Enter Jeff Gomez’s new book, Zeppelin Over Dayton, which attempts to do the near impossible—catalog the collected works of Guided By Voices and put them into some kind of historical perspective. For better or worse, he’s chosen to tell the story of GBV through an analysis of the band’s studio albums only. While this seems logical for almost any other band, Guided By Voices has almost as many EPs as albums, and almost as many collections (aka suitcases) of leftover ephemera as they do EPs and albums. In other words, doing a complete overview is a gargantuan task. True fans will want it all and more, of course, but I appreciate having even this much to assist me in bringing Pollard’s work into something approximating surgical focus. In the book, each proper album gets several pages of backstory followed by a semi-critical track-by-track analysis of the album. Gomez is, shocker in gloomtown here, somewhat biased in his assessment of the band’s work. (You expected objectivity?) The book’s first sentence sets the tone for what’s to come in no uncertain terms: “Guided By Voices are the best band America’s ever produced.” It’s a bold statement that he goes on to defend for the next 350 pages or so. The book, at its best, is informative, critical, and stimulating, full of interesting facts die-hard fans probably already know, but perfect for the rest of us grappling with a pile of records packed to the gills with seemingly random and arcane song titles and lyrics. At its worst, it can be prone to hyperbole, laziness (too many personal statements like “this song doesn’t do it for me” with no explanation), and numerous dubious claims (“'Club Molluska' shows why he’s one of the great rock’n’roll singers.”) He also whiffs on the discussion of Pollard’s alcohol intake (he and band get roaring drunk at every show) that points to a serious potential problem, but is written off with a single sentence, “I think it’s dangerous to assume he needs to get drunk to do what he does.” It seems like he’s sidestepping the issue to me, perhaps so he can stay close with the subject of his adoration? Perhaps I’ll find a real answer in Bob's authorized bio, Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices, but I doubt it. What the book did accomplish is it launched me into a major GBV binge with the book at my side for reference, following closely and looking for a few crumbs of information to help me decode the endless and fascinating ramblings of a songwriting genius. I have a soft spot for “labors of love” so Gomez’s rabid fandom is excused and any and all flaws forgiven.
But, as any true GBV fan knows, publishing a Guided By Voices book is a fool’s errand. The second it was sent to the publisher it was already out of date. Pollard writes, records, and releases an album before you have your morning muffin. I have two albums already (Surrender Your Poppy Field and Mirrored Aztec) that were released after the book’s last chapter (about Sweating the Plague) and the book has only been out for a couple months! Hopefully, he’ll publish updated editions regularly. Mirrored Aztec (one his better titles and his best release of 2020 so far) has been out since August and if it proves one thing yet again, it’s that Pollard is remarkably consistent from one album to the next. A quick romp through Gomez’s book confirms this fact. Every album contains numerous moments of brilliance, inexplicable throwaways, ill-fated experiments, and underdeveloped ideas. But that’s exactly what makes his records so deliriously interesting! (I recently made a “Best of GBV” playlist in iTunes and even heavily-curated, it was 82 songs long.) Mirrored Aztec finds the 62-year-old Pollard in fine late-period form and it includes some new GBV classics. Of course, one person’s definition of classic GBV seems to differ from the next. For me, the instant standouts so far are “Thank You Jane,” “I Think I Had It. I Think I Have It Again,” “To Keep an Area,” “Please Don’t Be Honest,” “Show of Hands,” and the incredibly-titled “Haircut Sphinx.” “Math Rock” is notable for the addition of a children’s choir. “A Whale is Top Notch” is one of his better one-minute wonders as well. In the end, there’s not much reward in picking and choosing tracks from Pollard’s albums. Feel free to do so if you wish, but the whole rub, proven by Jeff Gomez’s book, is that GBV is all about imperfections and experiments. Fidelity, songcraft, and performance all vary wildly throughout his catalog and that’s the point. It’s one large, morphing, ever-expanding mass and the bigger it gets the more we have to love.
6 THE NEW ROLLING STONE ALBUM GUIDE (Fourth Edition, ©2004)
I grew up with various editions of the Rolling Stone Album Guide at my side. I read them cover to cover when I was a kid, noting albums I wanted to buy, underlining key facts I wanted to remember, and subconsciously digesting how people described music with words. They helped me learn about the history of rock & roll, plain and simple. In retrospect, the books generally leaned toward dry, encyclopedic entries rather than reflect the rebellious and often comical nature of its source material. In other words, they wanted it to be “serious criticism.” By the time the Fourth Edition came out in 2004, I was done with Rolling Stone for the most part; its value to me negligible. I didn’t even buy it until years later when it was in the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble. For pandemic-related reasons the other day, I pulled it down and started thumbing through it casually. I was surprised at how loose and entertaining the writing was at times and also how downright scathing it could be when discussing many established and revered acts. Perhaps I counted Rolling Stone out too soon? Uh, probably not. But this time, the editors took the sticks out of their asses and allowed some humorous embellishments and a few poison pens into their esteemed pages. As a service, I’ve compiled just a few interesting tidbits for you below and I’ve even dedicated a special section later to highlight Rob Sheffield’s contributions. For me, he was the clear MVP of the book. Of course, Rolling Stone isn’t the definitive word on anything, but like it or not they were the preeminent rock and roll publication of their time and their influence in setting the context for rock & roll’s greatest moments was substantial. Deal with it.
Subject: The Red Hot Chili Peppers
This “rock” band is discarded like day-old fish in their entry. After reading it, you would not equate the critical analysis—which is dead-on—as support for the lifetime achievement award they were given by the Hall of Fame in 2012. “[The Chili Peppers] were terrorizing audiences in Los Angeles and beyond with a musical approach no more disciplined than a band of runaway orangutans” and “their humor…wouldn’t merit an audience in a high-school locker room.” Can a band with one 3.5 star album and the remainder averaging out at two stars each equate to a Hall of Fame selection in any universe? I don’t think so. Revoke their charter!
Thirteen studio albums are reviewed with a cumulative star count of 19.5, which equates to an average album rating of 1.5 stars. Even if we double the star count to account for the bias of the reviewer (significant), the picture remains bleak for this, say it with me, Hall of Fame rock band. Only Celine Dion fares worse in the book, logging 11.5 collective stars for 10 albums (a mind-boggling average of 1.15 stars per album). In the rock realm, Kansas gets similarly lambasted with a total star count of 17.5 spread out thinly over 15 records for an average of 1.16. (Quip: “Sadly Kansas never got around to making a duet album with Toto.”)
The magazine has famously snubbed the band, and as a result, that cold shoulder trickled down to the Record Guide (and HOF) as well (you can thank status-hungry Jann Wenner for that Rush fans). The HOF finally acquiesced under intense and persistent public pressure, but a critical reassessment didn’t follow suit. That fact understood, it’s still mystifying how 2112 could garner only 2.5 stars, especially compared to some of the dreck celebrated in the Guide’s pages (Matchbox 20’s debut album received a glowing 4-star review, indicating the need for some serious editorial calibration). Some solace is provided by a 3.5 star rating for both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, both of which are egregiously underrated by the book.
Subject: America (the band)
At one point, they rattle off 13 consecutive 1-star albums stretching over 20 years.
Subjects: The Doobie Brothers & Heart
According the the Guide, 2020 HOF inductees the Doobies and 2013 inductees Heart have never made an album worth more than three-stars (which means “pleasurable but not memorable” according to the rating legend). Hüsker Dü, on the other hand, a band with little to no chance for induction, logs in with two 5-star albums, one 4.5 star album, and two 4-star albums. The HOF has some serious explaining to do. Just sayin’.
A Night at the Opera gets 3.5-stars, but that’s the only thing they’ve ever released that is of any substantial merit according to the all-seeing and all-knowing 4th Edition!
Subject: The Rolling Stones
Twelve studio albums are rated 4.5 to 5-stars, which is way too many no matter how you slice or tumbling dice their catalog. Unforgiveable even if your magazine is named after the band and especially pandering because your one-time publisher fellated Mick Jagger every time he was in the magazine’s New York offices.
The most critically acclaimed band in the entire 927-page tome that is not already in the Rock HOF is none other than these 90’s legends. Three, count ‘em three, 5-star records, four 4-star records, and one disappointing effort logging in at a paltry 3.5 stars. Yet, they’re not even in the discussion for the ultimate rock and roll accolade. I do realize this is one critic’s perspective (and perhaps an editor’s, too), but something is not right in Denmark.
7 CRITIC WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR: Rob Sheffield
As noted in the item above, every time I had a really big belly laugh while reading the now acclaimed 4th Edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, the critic in question invariably ended up being Rob Sheffield. No wonder he’s gone on to a successful book writing career. Here are a few cherry-picked gems from his portfolio that I wish I had the talent to have written reproduced for your enjoyment:
From the Roxy Music entry:
“The key to understanding Bryan Ferry’s career is watching the opening credits of Fantasy Island. Ricardo Montalban’s Mr. Rourke, a character blatantly based on Bryan Ferry, spends his life fulfilling everybody else’s wildest fantasies while keeping his own private heartache discretely tucked away inside his white dinner jacket. He makes tragic faces and murmurs words of regret in an all-purpose pan-European accent. Note that during the opening credits of the television show, Mr. Rourke looks out his window and sees the plane landing before Tattoo rings the bell and yells, “The plane, boss! The plane!” Of course, Mr. Rourke already knows the plane is landing: He can hear it. So why does he make Tattoo go through this? Because he loves the ritual, the elaborate performance of his Fantasy Island melodramas, just as Bryan Ferry loves the pop song an its inherent ritualistic romantic repetition. Also, like Mr. Rourke, Bryan Ferry makes sure he never gets upstaged by always surrounding himself with much uglier men in public.”
From the Paul Abdul entry:
“She was very pretty, and if you ever had fantasies of having sex with a chipmunk, you probably bought three copies.”
From the Cure entry:
[On Robert Smith] “All swirled up in lipstick and rouge, wearing more face than his face could even hold, he smeared his cosmetics with a conspicuously unmothered flair that made him look like he’d eaten his way through the Clinique counter.”
From the Hole entry:
“Well, you wouldn’t want to share a bathroom with her, but let the record show that Courtney Love did, in fact, make a great album once…”
From the Kiss entry:
“Kiss became the hottest band in the world in the ‘70s by prizing showmanship first—compared to these guys, the Banana Splits were sharecroppers down on the farm, and the Partridges were the Carter Family.”
From the Poison entry:
“They looked like four slices of wedding cake that just escaped out the bakery window.”
From the review of Radiohead’s The Bends:
“U2 would have sold crack to nuns to make this record.”
From the Supertramp entry:
“Here’s one of those eternal rock & roll questions: Did the saxophone player from Supertramp ever get any action.”
8 BEASTIE BOYS / “Sabotage”
A quick shout-out to the Beastie Boys for allowing their most famous song to be used in a Joe Biden commercial that highlights how the mishandling and mismanaging of the Coronavirus crisis has impacted music venues nationwide. The band has never allowed a song to be used before, which only reinforces what a major blow this crisis has been to our nation’s music venues. Watch the commercial here.
9 OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN (FT. MIKE SAMMES) / “Let Me Be There” & “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”
Early in my fantasy girlfriend Olivia Newton-John’s career, a strange production decision was made on two of her earliest pop hits. Specifically, the addition of the impossibly deep vocal tracks that shadow Olivia like they're duets from the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast. Those underworldly bass vocals were contributed by
Mike Sammes on both “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” and they are such a big part of those songs, you may have grown used to them by now. But the more I isolate on them, the more I scratch my head at how prevalent they are. Did someone think Olivia’s vocal track alone couldn’t carry the song? Were they so sweet and intoxicatingly sexy that they felt they needed to temper them with an imposing male counterpoint? Sure, he’s got a gift, and I don’t blame him for singing what he was told to sing, but I can think of no other song by a female singer that has such a pronounced and intrusive backing vocal. Maybe they felt the song lacked a bottom end, although I find that hard to believe. If they needed a stronger vocal presence, why not multi-track Olivia’s voice instead? Everybody was doing it back then, so why not? As I listen to it now, I have become downright aggravated by his presence on the song. He almost sounds like an old teacher stalking a teenage girl during a high school dance. Creepy.
*Side note: Mike Sammes had some other notable background singing moments when his group, The Mike Sammes Singers, added vocal tracks to two Beatles songs: “I Am the Walrus” and “Good Night” and also showed up again on the band’s Let It Be album.
THE 10 SPOT
Last week we introduced a new feature into the Ten Spot, The Pickles Priest’s Fetishes, and Fetish #0001 was so popular we decided to make another confession in today’s Top 10 list.
PRIEST FETISH #0002: Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent
PRIEST FETISH #0003: Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 album cover
PRIEST FETISH #0004: Olivia Newton-John 8x10 glossy publicity shot
PRIEST FETISH #0005: Olivia Newton-John's good-to-bad makeover in Grease
PRIEST FETISH #0006: Olivia Newton-John’s Totally Hot album cover
PRIEST FETISH #0007: Olivia Newton-John’s Physical video collection
PRIEST FETISH #0008: Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 album cover
OK, so I had a little Olivia Newton-John fetish when I was “younger.” I own it. If you grew up in the late-70s/early-80s, such an obsession wasn’t uncommon. For me, it all started the first time I heard her sweet and innocent Australian accent, which threw me over the moon whenever she spoke. Secretly, I wondered what it would take for me to land a cute Australian girl of my own. Has anything sweeter ever been created than the Olivia we see on the cover of her first Greatest Hits album? Labrador puppies look like gaunt heroin addicts in comparison. At that moment, in my mind at least, she was the most desirable human on the planet; green eyes, perfect skin, silky blonde hair, glossy lips, baby blue sweater—lordy, lordy, lordy, to quote Jack Tripper. This is one of the few albums I’ve actually kissed (for the full list send SASE and $3.00 c/o The Pickled Priest). My obsession was so poorly concealed that my brother once gave me a black & white publicity shot of Olivia for Christmas (see photo below) with her delicious gam protruding from her dress seductively like a spare rib ready to be gnawed upon. System overload, please reboot. I repeat, please reboot!
Then came Grease, which made her a major sensation for better or worse, one we all had to share equally. I enjoyed the movie in general, but what I really liked was the Good Olivia / Bad Olivia transformation. What have we here; the best of both worlds perhaps? I must admit, Good Olivia was my thing up to that time, but Bad Olivia was making inroads. And by “inroads” I mean (redacted). After that, Olivia mined the Bad Olivia angle for all it was worth. The album cover of Totally Hot came out in late-1978 and it also included some songs to listen to as an added bonus. This time, Bad Olivia was back (at least visually) and so were her leather pants from the Grease wardrobe trailer. (Side note: the album wasn’t so great, ending with an ill-fated cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” which took me years to purge from my memory banks.)
Then the levee broke.
Olivia’s Physical album included the songs and visuals that launched a thousand (redacted). “Physical” and “Make a Move on Me” were the big hits from the record and they were as steamy as an aerobics workout and they came with videos this time, too! Oh how I wished Olivia was speaking to me when she sang, “There’s nothing left to talk about / ‘Less it’s horizontally.” Yes, my sweet Olivia was getting sexual—and I liked it. And so did all my friends. When a friend’s family secured a “home” VCR (the size and weight of a 1981 Ford Fiesta and about the same cost), we slipped into a local video store to rent a copy of the complete Olivia Newton-John video collection. We brought it back to his house with haste,
ensured the coast was clear, and watched it over and over again until his mom’s car pulled up outside. The afterglow lasted well into sophomore year. There was no YouTube at the time, so this was it for live action Olivia for the most part. And it was glorious. Speaking of glorious, Olivia’s next Greatest Hits collection (Volume 2) was a visual revelation. I loved the music (again, the more aggressive Olivia agreed with me), but the fold out version of Olivia, clad in white sweater and matching white spandex pants, was almost too much to bear. Let’s put it this way; we didn’t stop at kissing this time. To this day, I retain that very copy, but I do have keep it away from any black light exposure as a precautionary measure.
You may think that a fitting end to my Olivia obsession, but you would be wrong. In later years, she’s still retained her aura of invincibility for me. While I’ve focused here on my formative years, she’s continued to garner my attention for more reasons than her looks or accent or leather pants. She’s always been an amazing person and has handled great adversity in her life with dignity and grace. I never doubted that would be the case, of course. She positively radiated beauty inside and out back then and she still does now.
That's all I can take this week. I'm sure you feel the same. Remember to "get physical" with music this week by actually buying some new vinyl records or CDs. Support artists. It'll make you feel good. I promise.